When political operators uses toxic tactics at work, we need not respond by descending into the pit right alongside them. Responding ethically and with integrity is almost always possible, if we can detect the devious tactics early enough. Here's a collection of fairly widely used political tactics, with some suggestions for ethical, but politically savvy, responses.
- Hit and Run
- When someone moves on from one high profile activity to another while the current effort is still underway, he or she might have knowledge (or suspect) that the current effort is at risk or doomed. Soon afterward, the project implodes, but the operator isn't charged, and often claims that the then-current owners of the activity are at fault.
- If a project in your organization implodes dramatically, just after the departure of its leader or champion, investigate carefully before calling on her or him to rescue the project. Rule out "Hit and Run" before you get hit again.
- The proxy target
- Sometimes an attacker's true target isn't the person who's attacked. Rather, it could be the supervisor or mentor of the person attacked. By attacking the proxy target, the attacker diverts the attention of the true target, and might even harm the true target's reputation.
- When attacked by someone much more powerful than yourself, don't assume that you're the true target. You could be a proxy. The harm done to you might be just as real, but knowing what's actually happening can be extremely helpful in formulating a response.
- Confidential disinformation
- When we confide in one another, the confider usually believes what is confided. That's one reason why we tend to believe what others tell us in confidence. Enhanced credibility explains, in part, why political operators sometimes tell lies — or partial truths — in confidence. And they also gain the protection of secrecy and deniability.
- Don't assume that confiders believe everything they tell you in confidence. Verify and validate when you can.
- The favored subordinate
- Supervisors sometimes designate a favored subordinate who receives extra attention, multiple benefits, and who can seemingly do no wrong. Especially when this designation results from supervisor initiative — that is, when the designee hasn't curried favor — the supervisor has acknowledged and usually accepts the possibility that other subordinates will become resentful or demoralized.
- Whether or not the favored When someone moves on from
one high profile activity to another
while the current effort is still
underway, he or she might know
that the current effort
is at risk or doomedsubordinate has sought special status, it's likely that the supervisor's intentional choice is a signal to other subordinates that they must either accept secondary status, or move on. Because there are rarely any limits to how secondary that secondary status will be, it's probably best to move on. You lose little, though, because the favored position is usually just another form of subordination, maintained only at the price of freedom and dignity.
Detecting these patterns in our own situations can be difficult, because we don't want to find them. Look for them first in the situations others face. When you become adept at spotting them there, examine your own. Top Next Issue
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For more devious political tactics, check out the archive Devious Political Tactics.
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Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout
- Coming July 22: Red Flags: I
- When we finally admit to ourselves that a collaborative effort is in serious trouble, we sometimes recall that we had noticed several "red flags" early enough to take action. Toxic conflict and voluntary turnover are two examples. Available here and by RSS on July 22.
- And on July 29: Red Flags: II
- When we find clear evidence of serious problems in a project or other collaboration, we sometimes realize that we had overlooked several "red flags" that had foretold trouble. In this Part II of our review of red flags, we consider communication patterns that are useful indicators of future problems. Available here and by RSS on July 29.
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Many people who possess real organizational power have a characteristic demeanor. It's the way they project their presence. I call this the power affect. Some people — call them power pretenders — adopt the power affect well before they attain significant organizational power. Unfortunately for their colleagues, and for their organizations, power pretenders can attain organizational power out of proportion to their merit or abilities. Understanding the power affect is therefore important for anyone who aims to attain power, or anyone who works with power pretenders. Read more about this program.
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Decision-makers in modern organizations commonly demand briefings in the form of bullet points or a series of series of bullet points. But this form of presentation has limited value for complex decisions. We need something more. We actually need to think. Briefers who combine the bullet-point format with a variety of persuasion techniques can mislead decision-makers, guiding them into making poor decisions. Read more about this program.
Beware any resource that speaks of "winning" at workplace politics or "defeating" it. You can benefit or not, but there is no score-keeping, and it isn't a game.